The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Back to school nerves

As I write this I am heading back home from school.

It is one I attended as a teenager and of which I have mixed memories, hence some nerves on my arrival earlier today.

When there I never appreciated the beautiful old building in which we had assemblies and were taught. Too busy surviving as a confused teenager. Now I returned as an alumni who is fascinated by the building’s architect Charles Barry junior.

My final year subjects were history, French and economics. The first two were strong personal preferences and because I wasn’t allowed to do maths with them (shocking but true), I opted for economics which my older brother had recommended to me.

I continually regret not having done maths after age 16 and this in part inspired me to work later in life in maths education policy. An achievement of which I am proud is that we managed to convince the English Government of the importance of as many teenagers as possible doing post16 maths.

I did meet the head teacher but we didn’t discuss education. As it turns out the school is celebrating 400 years since its foundation as a place for poor scholars to study. Part of the celebrations was a lecture a fortnight back by Caroline Shenton on Sir Charles Barry, who like his son had been surveyor to the vast Dulwich Estate. During today’s research I took a photograph of an original 1830 letter of reference from Edward Cust allowing Barry senior to gain his position. Cust had previously chaired the selection panel which had chosen Charles to design and build the seminal Travellers Club in London. He would go on to be one of the judges who selected Barry’s design for the New Houses of Parliament, declaring no personal interest in the outcome.

Such was the way of the world and it still continues to this day. Who you know is more important than what you know. I don’t agree with it but would be foolish to ignore the benefits.

Structuring a book on structures

I never realised it would be so hard to write a book!

In my case not only have I started to write my first one, but I’ve added to the challenge by deciding to self-publish it.

But it seems that there has been a break through after a period of editor’s block. In the post I described one or two issues going on which were holding me up – now I feel that progress has been made and I wanted to share this with you.

After a number of conversations with different prospective editors I chose one of them to do an editorial assessment for me. This was relatively simple and inexpensive and helped me focus my writing on key tasks. Then I asked for offers to undertake bigger editorial tasks. The problem was I didn’t really know how big these tasks were going to be. So this time round my conversations with prospects were more about eliciting advice on the editorial process for self-publishers. I am much clearer now.

Finally, I selected one candidate to take me on. This wasn’t easy as there were good offers coming in including from one individual who probably knew more about architectural history than me. However, I decided to go with a different choice because I liked the way they presented themselves and we spoke on the phone at their suggestion.

The other thing that helped me was finally getting in touch with the acknowledged expert on Sir Charles Barry. I had put this off for many years, partly through not being easily able to contact him electronically, my favoured medium. In the end I simply tracked down a phone number and called, not being sure of what reaction I might get. To my surprise we had a great conversation and informally agreed not to get in each others’ way. My focus will be on the Barry dynasty, his on the great architect. I have to admit some relief about this!

I now have a clear goal of writing a specific number of words on a contents list of headings for the book. Should be plain sailing then …

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.

On the trail of the Barrys

By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.

I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.

Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.

That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.

Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.

Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….

A brief pause before the writing really begins

I’m using this blog to share my thoughts about issues related to the life and impact of Sir John Wolfe Barry, 19th Century civil engineer and builder of Tower Bridge.

I’ve been in a pause phase as I’m now committed to writing a book about John’s father and brothers and their relationships with him and each other. I’m planning the book project as I wind up full-time employment commuting into Central London which I have been doing for the last 17 out of 21 years (there was a four year hiatus).

The key goal is to write words!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This is sooner said than done. Words don’t come easy, to quote a song lyric. I’m setting up an environment where I can focus 100% on writing without distraction. My chosen location is the rear bedroom in our house which overlooks the garden. I will remove the temporary bed there and set up a desk in front of the window. It doesn’t get direct sunlight until the afternoon so I will start early and write until lunchtime.

I will somehow need to avoid referring too much to my many sources as this will hold up the flow. Blogging has probably helped with this. The key is to establish a good framework for the text and themes and then fill the space with words.

I know I can do it. I may review the product of my first draft but I must avoid perfecting things continuously as I go along – this just serves to slow down momentum and lead to self-doubt and questioning. Wish me luck!

Why tell a story?

In my previous post I said I am writing a book about the famous 19th Century architect Sir Charles Barry and his five sons, of whom four became well-known in their own right.

Why am I telling this story?

Firstly, because I want to. That’s my prerogative as the author! It will fulfil my personal ambition ever since I started researching one of the sons (can you guess who?) many years back.

Secondly, because I think stories are great ways to communicate with people about things that may hit a chord with them. These can be very personal issues, or more likely because they empathise with certain characters and the good and bad times they may go through. It can also be for purely technical reasons e.g. they love trains so any book about them is bound to be an attraction (hint, mine will have some mentions of trains, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re a fanatic!).

Thirdly, because if people like this story then perhaps they’ll be interested in other ones that follow. This would be good for both me and them as writer and readers. Clearly it’s a relationship.

Last night I watched the new film about the character Mowgli from the famous Jungle Books created by the journalist and author Rudyard Kipling. For those who may not know the tale, Mowgli is a boy who was raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and is conflicted by his upbringing with animals and the fact that he is a human underneath. This is a fascinating paradox which the author explores expertly and weaves his magic in the form of a plausible story.

To my mind this is the essence of story telling, which I hope I can  somehow reproduce through my writing.